In the 19th century local magistrates played an important role in the enforcement of the law. As well as administering local justice, the magistrates possessed the power to call upon the regular army and local militia to deal with social unrest. It was also the responsibility of the magistrates to inform the Government of political activities in their area and reading the Riot Act when there was crowd trouble. To obtain information on radicals, magistrates employed spies to gather information from factories, public houses and political meetings.
Magistrates were chosen by the Monarchy on the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenant of the county. Men could only be magistrates if they had an income of £100 from freehold land. This system meant that in places like Manchester, magistrates came from the established landowning families rather than those who had made their money from the industrial revolution. It was an unwritten rule in Lancashire that no active manufacturers could become magistrates.
All Manchester's magistrates were Anglicans and four of these were members of the clergy. In 1819 the chairman of Manchester's magistrates was William Hulton. Other magistrates on duty on 16th August, 1819 included the Rev. William Hay, Rev. Charles Wickstead Ethelston, Thomas Tatton and Colonel Ralph Fletcher.
(1) On 31st July, 1819, the Manchester Magistrates pronounced on the proposed meeting at St. Peter's Fields.
Whereas it appears by the advertisement in the Manchester Observer paper of this day, that a public and illegal meeting is convened for Monday the 9th of August next, to be held on the area near St. Peter's Church, in Manchester; we, the undersigned magistrates, acting for the counties of Lancaster and Chester, do hereby caution all persons to abstain, at their peril, from attending such illegal meetings.
(2) Henry Brougham, letter to Earl Grey on the Peterloo Massacre on 31st August, 1819.
The magistrates there (in Manchester) and all over Lancashire I have long known for the worst in England, the most bigotted, violent and active.